New "Apes" Trilogy Goes Out With A Narrative Whimper

Even more than 2014’s “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” before it, “War For The Planet Of The Apes” is a wonderfully ornate piece of technological pomp masquerading as high cinema. Writer-director Matt Reeves’ superb visual eye is a perfect match for his faith in moviegoers to conflate seriousness and drama, resulting in a film so handsomely glum, so without a sense of adventure that viewers will have little choice but to mine the filmmaker’s 140-minute misery for imagined gravitas; for a sense of scope that only exists in the movie’s title.

But “Skirmish For The Seaboard Of The Apes” wouldn’t have the same ring to it.

Reeves’ second “Apes” film – the third in the rebooted series – sees motion capture vet Andy Serkis return to headline as anthropomorphic ape Caesar, ensuring the trilogy’s place in film history. Not for its newsprint-thin storytelling, but as testimony to the realized potential of computer-generated parts. CGI characters aren’t just capable of being as compelling as flesh-and-blood characters, but running dramatic circles around them. Caesar and his small army of apes are so much more captivating than any of the human characters in “War” that it borders on absurd. By the time Woody Harrelson’s evil Colonel delivers a dopey monologue about his “holy war” against our heroes, we want him dead not just for being so evil but for being so boring.

Reeves’ screenplay, co-written by Mark Bomback, begins as a road movie. Here, it’s at its peak. Caesar, orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and company hit the highway when their camp is discovered and shot up by the aforementioned Colonel and his troops. Caesar is hell-bent on revenge, Maurice on keeping his leader alive. Along the way, the quartet takes in a mute human orphan they call Nova (Amiah Miller), but hers is a subplot that dead-ends as soon as it begins. The more memorable character to join Caesar’s clan along the way is a hermit chimp nicknamed Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Bad Ape lends the movie its only moments of levity, each one wildly out of place but appreciated all the same.

Once our heroes reach their destination, “War” pivots from road movie to prison drama, sinking into a dramatic muck from which it never resurfaces. Reeves and Bomback dump all of their biblical and sociological allegories out on to a table and lazily sift through them, robbing the rest of film from the modest subtleties enjoyed by “Rise” and “Dawn.” An extended prison escape scene plays laboriously while the realities of the narrative – that humans continue to die off from an ape-originated plague – are continually pushed to the background. Understandable, since the scope of the film is so small, but it begs for a less obvious trajectory and denouement for Caesar. Serkis is brilliant as everything happening around his character ping-pongs between depressing and inevitable.

With Reeves’ metaphors all face-up, “War” becomes nothing but an awfully literal conclusion of a trilogy that once hinted at much bigger, more symbolic things.

The special effects are, of course, ace, with some of the apes – Maurice, especially – coming off as photorealistic throughout. And Michael Giacchino’s score ranks among his best, driving home what action there is. But in a series that’s spent three films building up its own weightiness, excellent CGI and compelling music aren’t enough. Despite the mighty Andy Serkis delivering a career-best performance and the geniuses at Weta Digital leading the way, it all adds up to a midsummer bummer, predictable in the extreme and only half as compelling as its predecessors. When reality sinks in – Caesar’s reality – it feels so much smaller and more inconsequential than the lead up.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 14, 2017
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Matt Reeves, Mark Bomback
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images)